Orcs Must Die! Unchained Review
Orcs Must Die! Unchained (OMDU) is the third game in the tower defense meets third-person action game series, but in some ways it is a new beginning for the series. The core gameplay remains intact, but rather than charging you for the base game and then for a series of DLC expansions, OMDU has moved to a free-to-play model. The game is free to download on Steam or directly from the OMDU website and gives you complete access to all of the game modes for free right from the start.
The game uses a two-tier currency system, skulls and gold, with skulls awarded after every level based on your performance and gold coming at the cost of real world cash. Everything that you can buy with gold you can buy with skulls with the exception of vanity items, so the premium currency in the game exists primarily as a tax on your patience. That being said, don't expect to unlock all of the game's traps, heroes, and other such things after a couple of days. There will be grinding involved, but how much of a grind that you'll find that to be will depend on how much fun you're having playing the game. OMDU also shares some of the features of freemium games that will be familiar to those who've played those types of games in the past such as consecutive daily login bonuses, paid experience boosters, and discounted packages of gold or premium items.
As for the game, the basic concept will be recognizable to anyone who's played a tower defense game before. Enemies enter the level from one or more portals and then proceed to make their way to your rift, where they will exit. Let too many enemies exit and you'll fail the level. Survive all of the enemy attack waves with your rift intact and you win. Defeating enemies rewards you with currency which you can use to shore up your defenses between attack waves.
You have a few tools at your disposal to stop the enemies before they reach your rift. The first one is your trap collection. Before each wave enters the level you'll have the chance to purchase and place traps - your initial budget is set by the level, but after that you'll earn most of your coin by eliminating enemies - although you're free to place traps during a wave as long as you can afford them. Traps can be placed on walls, floors, or ceilings depending on the trap type, and have a variety of effects beyond damaging enemies. Some, like the Tar Trap, slow enemies down, allowing other nearby traps to deliver more damage to them or simply buying you some extra time to deal with them. Others can knock enemies back enemies or even, as in the case of the Flip Trap, launch them into the air and off a wall. Barricades let you essentially redraw a level's routes to the rift, and can be used to send enemies on a circuitous route, run them past your traps, or funnel them through a tight space where you can crowd them into an easier to kill, bunched mob.
Trap placement is critical to success in the game. You'll quickly find that throwing them out at random or without an overall plan for the level usually leads to a quick defeat. There's a puzzle-like aspect to the levels, not in that there's only a single solution for each one that must be discovered, but in that you need to adjust your strategy to match the level. Try to stick to a script on a new level and you'll quickly find yourself losing. And while on the topic of losing, I should let you know that you should expect to fail at a new level the first few times you attempt it. The game is not very forgiving of mistakes and you'll make plenty of them on your first few attempts to complete a level. If you're easily frustrated, this might get to you, but I enjoyed the challenge of adjusting my strategies for each level and working out the best way to survive each new level.
When you first start out in OMDU, you'll be taken through a series of five levels that will introduce you to hero powers and your initial trap set a few at a time. This isn't a forced tutorial - there are optional tutorials available to play through first if you are truly new to Orcs Must Die - but rather a way to play through regular game levels with some guidance as to how and when to deploy the various types of traps. These missions are also what pass for the game's story mode, although calling it a story mode is being rather generous.
Once you complete the missions - and you'll have to complete the missions before you can jump into the game proper - you'll have several play modes available to you. The primary mode, Battlegrounds, consists of a series of levels played on different maps that you unlock in sequence as you beat the prior levels. There's a progression to the difficulty level in the maps, both in terms of map layout and in the increasing variety of enemy types that you'll face. There are also four challenge level tiers which throw progressively more powerful enemies at you. You're going to want to replay levels in order to level-up you heroes and traps to give you a better chance at the later levels, and while this is technically grinding there are a few reasons it won't necessarily feel like it. The first is that the game will rate your performance on each level with one through five stars, so there's the challenge of picking up a five star rating. You'll also be awarded with loot chests for doing things like beating a level again with a different hero. These levels can all be played in co-op with a friend, not only giving you twice the hero power to beat a level, but also giving you the chance to increase the variety of traps available to place in the level if both players bring different loadouts to the level.
Speaking of loadouts, the game will allow you to create and save a number of loadouts which lets you create custom sets of traps, autonomous guardians, equipment, and perks. Some traps will serve you better in some levels than in others, and some heroes have an affinity for certain trap types. Also, managing your loadouts so that you can contribute to co-op and sabotage matches in a specific role will help you to be a more effective team player. Sorry, didn't mean to spring sabotage mode on you like that, but I'll be covering that next...
Sabotage mode is a competitive multiplayer mode, and is an entirely new mode for the series. Two teams of three players each play the same map in separate games but simultaneously. The goal is still to protect your rift, and in this case the first team to lose their rift loses the match and the other team takes the win. While on the surface it looks like you're just playing a map with two friends, the other team is actually working against you while they're working to protect their rift. Of course, your team will be dong the exact same thing. At the start of each match, you're dealt two random effect cards from your deck that can be played at any time during the match. Some will affect enemy heroes, such as stunning them or draining all of their mana, some will release a batch of new enemies through the portal, and others can affect the other team's traps or rift. Timing the use of your cards is important because you want them to have maximum impact but you can't wait too long and miss your chance to use them. While you can't see your opponents directly, you can keep tabs on them with a pop-up mini map that shows the locations of the enemy heroes and where their enemies are on the map to help you time your attack for maximum impact. Not all cards affect the enemy team - some can provide bonuses to your team such as reducing trap costs or increasing the rate at which you earn coins. You'll start out with a deck of basic cards, but you'll earn new ones through after match rewards or chests. The cards come in a variety of rarity levels, and the rarer the card the more powerful it is.
In Sabotage mode good communication with your team is vital, starting with the loadout screen where you can see which traps each player is bringing to the match. You can swap out traps from this screen and determine responsibilities for the match, so you don't have to worry about waiting until the match has started to find out that no one brought barricades with them.
Sabotage is a blast to play and often feels completely frenetic compared to Battlegrounds. Matches can end in catastrophic failure within minutes, or turn into real fights that are finally decided in sudden death overtime. Most matches run about five minutes or so, and don't often exceed ten minutes, so it's easy to jump in and get in a few Sabotage matches even when you're pressed for time. Dealing with the problems that the enemy team throws your way is exciting, but not quite as satisfying as a well-timed card play that leads to a rapid collapse of the enemy team's rift.
There are two final modes of play in OMDU. Endless is a mode that plays just as its name sounds. Waves of enemies will keep coming at you until your rift inevitably collapses. Similar to horde modes in other games, the goal each time you play is to best your survival record.
The final mode of play is the Weekly Challenge. A new challenge will be available each week that provides all players with the same set of starting conditions - your available heroes, traps, and loadout will be restricted to those chosen for you. The Weekly Challenge isn't easy to beat, but the rewards will make it worth your while to keep trying until you do. It's also a good way to try out heroes you haven't unlocked yet before committing skulls or gold to purchase them. All players begin with free access to three heroes, a ranged weapon hero, a ranged caster hero, and a melee hero, each of which is a balanced generalist. There are sixteen total heroes available in the game, and while they all fall into either a ranged or melee attack class, they have different capabilities which make them play differently than the other heroes and make them suited to playing different roles in a co-op or Sabotage match.
OMDU is an enjoyable game, with a nice combination of strategy and action gameplay with enough inherent randomness to keep the maps you've played a number of times before interesting. That being said, you should be aware that progression in the game comes in terms of access new traps, trap upgrades, and trap mods, as well as gear and perks, rather than in making your way through a campaign or a large number of levels. I found it odd and a little frustrating that trap upgrade points are awarded as random drops rather than through using the traps in the game, so it can take a while to upgrade the traps in your favorite loadouts while traps that you don't really use have reached higher upgrade levels. While there is variety in terms of enemy types at different difficulty levels and the number of heroes and traps you can use, the number of maps in the game is naturally limited. Achievement chasers will be in heaven, though, as the game features over 100 achievements to unlock. The game is free to download and play and it is worth your time to do so, but its ability to hold your interest will depend a lot on whether accumulating more items and tweaking loadouts is something you enjoy or find to be a grind, as well as how much you enjoy multiplayer play. If you do, Sabotage mode will keep you coming back for more long after you've played your way through all of the Battlegrounds levels.
Final Rating: 84% - The orcs have been unchained from pay-to-play to a freemium game.